Sabbatai Zevi and the Jewish Imagination
Modern experience has taught us to recognize that in the particular past which we choose to rediscover, we discover ourselves—that is, we find out who we are and, in the older sense of the word “discover,” we reveal, or expose, ourselves. This, at any rate, has repeatedly been the case since the 18th century, when people first began to look at the past in the full lucidity of historical perspective, out of a steady awareness of essential differences in the feel of human experience in different ages. Thus, the rediscovery of the middle ages by English writers in the last decades of the 18th century represented a final turning away from the age of reason, or rather solid common sense, that had begun with Hobbes, Locke, and the neoclassical writers after them: symptomatically, the term “Gothic,” which was synonymous with “barbaric” for Pope and Swift, came to suggest rich and alluring realms of passionate adventure by the end of the century. In a similar way, the fascination that the primitive past has held for the modern age, since the time of Frazer, obviously reflects the underlying concerns and confusions of our own cultural predicament: out of a sense of sapped vitality, we turn to dark wellsprings of archaic life; out of a radical disenchantment with the weary and destructive course of Western history, we fill our inner vacuity with visions of ages when that history had scarcely begun, of places it never touched.
Now, in the varieties of Jewish experience undertaken since the French Revolution, it is the biblical past which has often served the purpose of focusing the self-awareness of the present. For the Reform movement in 19th-century Germany, the Bible was, of course, the source of those eternal verities that had been hidden or disguised by the encrustations of rabbinic law. There is, however, little attempt to reconstruct the life of the past imaginatively in this Reform use of the Bible as the artificial prop for a shaky ideology. In the early stages of modern Hebrew literature, on the other hand, the return to the Bible did involve a real immersion in the biblical past. The language of the new poetry and fiction, after all, was often the language of the Bible itself, in syntax, idiom, imagery; and many writers of the Hebrew Enlightenment struggled heroically to imagine anew, out of the bleakness and impotence of their lives in Exile, the sun-blessed warmth and vigor of life on the land when their forefathers tilled and defended it. There is an inner connection, therefore, between the literary return to the biblical past of the Hebrew Enlightenment and the physical return to the land of the Bible first envisioned by the proponents of Hibat Zion (Love of Zion) in the 1860′s and fully realized by the Zionist movement. It is perfectly understandable that the Bible should still be given inordinate emphasis in Israel’s schools and official cultural programs; implicit in the concentration on this particular stretch of the past is a rejection or at least depreciation of the long stretch of diaspora history which followed it.
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